What Keeps Me in the Ghetto?

by Georgina Kleege

I left my office and walked the quarter of a mile to the BART station in downtown Berkeley, California. For once, all the traffic lights were in my favour and the crowds of other pedestrians were moving rapidly enough that I did not have to break my stride. I rode down the escalator, passed through the turnstile and descended the stairs to the platform, stepped aboard my train and dropped into a seat just as the doors closed. I let out a small but audible sigh of satisfaction; if I’d left the office a minute later, or had to stop for one red light, or slow down to manoeuvre through a snarl of pedestrians, I would have missed this train. Not that it would have been such a tragedy: there would have been another train along in a few minutes. But it was one of those small bouts of good luck that can make all the difference at the end of the working day.

As the train pulled out of the station, a woman in an adjacent seat leaned over, lightly touched my knee and said, ‘You’re such an inspiration to me.’ For a brief – too brief –moment, I hopefully thought she was commenting ironically on my sigh of triumph on catching this train. But I’ve heard this comment before, couldn’t delude myself for long, and knew what was coming. She leaned a little closer to speak over the sound of the train and said, ‘I mean here you are,’ she paused to nod at my white cane, ‘and yet you got up this morning, got yourself dressed and came right on down here to get on BART.’

I have heard this sort of comment many times before. I didn’t need to see her nod at my cane to understand what she meant. She was not sharing the small triumph I felt at the alignment of the stars that had allowed me to leave my office and get on the train without having to pause or wait. She was telling me that I was an inspiration because I was blind and yet had the heroic tenacity to drag myself out of bed, dress myself, leave my humble home and expose myself to public scrutiny here on the BART train. She did not imagine that I might have a job, professional responsibilities or social obligations. It was late in the afternoon. What did she think I’d been doing all day? Did she imagine that it took all that time to dress myself, to grope through my closet for an outfit then rummage through my dresser to find socks to match? Did she assume that I then had to steel myself before venturing across my threshold? And where did she think I was going on the train? Or did she imagine that I would just ride the train endlessly, filling the empty hours of the evening, until I was tired enough to go home? I briefly considered pointing out to her that there were, at that moment, numerous other people on the train with us. I could feel them there around me, hear them speaking to each other or the music buzzing through their headphones I could say that they too had gotten themselves dressed and come down here to ride the train. Why wasn’t she inspired by them as well? Or was she telling me that everyone else on the train was naked? I don’t remember what I said. I could tell irony was not going to save me. The best I could offer was a chilly smile – more of a grimace really – that I hoped would exude the message that I didn’t want to talk about it and that she should get her hand off my knee.
I believe that this experience is a commonplace for many disabled people. Something like this happens to me about once a month. Others may have the encounter more or less frequently. But at some time or another, some non-disabled person – a ‘Normate’ as I like to call them when I’m feeling nice – will haul off and slam us with the news that we are an inspiration to them. And it has nothing to do with anything we might count as an accomplishment. We are an inspiration simply for existing in the world, for putting ourselves in public view, for not committing suicide when apparently suicide might seem a logical solution to our predicament. In fact, what’s behind the comment is the belief that disabled people exist to be inspirational to Normates. We are there to spur their ambition or to shame them out of complaining.

I know that some disabled people hear the opposite message: ‘You’re not so bad off. You should just try harder.’ This is particularly prevalent for people with invisible impairments or conditions that vary in severity. Frequently these comments come with a reference to some other disabled person who should serve as a role model because she or he is much worse off. Helen Keller served this function in the US for many decades. She was not only both deaf and blind, and therefore more disabled than many of us, but nevertheless always presented herself to the public as cheerful and plucky. Of course, some disabled people are never praised for being inspirational, for instance, the disabled panhandlers who typically congregate around BART stations. No inspiration to be had there. At best, the Normates look on them with pity for being unemployed, unemployable and needy. At worst, they look on them with scepticism, suspicious that their guide dogs, canes, crutches, wheelchairs and so forth are all a guise.

Disabled artists get the inspirational comment all the time. Blurbs on books by disabled authors, reviews of exhibits and performances by disabled painters or actors frequently feature some version of the message. It seems to be a knee-jerk reaction among the Normates. If it has anything to do with disability, it must have something to do with the buoyancy of the human spirit, the heroic struggle to triumph over adversity. The subtext to this message is not that the art is done well but that it is done at all, and that it is good for the Normate audience to experience it, perhaps to gain some spiritual uplift or, better yet, an inoculation against some accident or illness that will land them in the same boat with us.

What’s pernicious about the inspiration comment is that occasionally it feels good. Even with legal mandates to increase the civil rights of people with disabilities that have come into being in the past few decades, it is hard for us to do what we do: hard to get degrees, hard to get and keep jobs, and perhaps even harder for those of us in the arts to get past the usual gate keepers and gain any sort of recognition. When times are rough, praise (even of the paltriest kind) can make it feel like at least someone is paying attention.

A companion comment is: ‘I don’t think of you as disabled.’ Would anyone make this comment to a member of another minority group? Again there is an implicit comparison. There are all those other disabled people out there, who are undone by their impairments, who don’t have what it takes to get up in the morning, get dressed and venture out into the world to fulfil the mission to be inspirational to Normates. My response to this is, ‘But I am disabled.’ The fact that I have adapted to my impairment and adopted assistive technologies that allow me to get around and get my job done does not mean that my impairment has gone away. The problem is one of definitions: the person who wants to praise me by saying that I don’t seem disabled by my blindness, defines disability as a diminished or degraded experience of life. I think of my disability as part of my identity; it has not only shaped my way of being in the world, it has shaped my world view. And it has shaped the world views of other disabled people in ways that I find illuminating.

If I want to know something about a piece of visual art I will seek out an artist or, better yet, a deaf person or, best of all, a deaf artist. Why this hierarchy? Because I have observed that even average, non-artist deaf people tend to have a heightened visual awareness. They are more alert to subtle visual details, adept at making meaning from visual aspects other people don’t notice. If I want to know something about architecture, I’ll ask a wheelchair user, preferably one who is also an architect or designer. A friend told me that when she visits the Guggenheim Museum in New York in her power wheelchair, the experience is all about the art; when she’s in her manual chair, it’s all about the building. What Normate could have such an insight?

After I published my last book, a friend asked me if I would now go back to writing on ‘normal’ topics. There was a time when I did not write about disability. Since then, I’d written two books and numerous short pieces about my own impairment and about disability in general. My friend was assuming that surely I had exhausted the topic by now and, in sticking to it, I was risking limiting my readership. I know many other disabled artists who have heard this message from agents, gallery managers and theatre producers. And they have a point. I have no doubt that many readers pass over my work because they assume that it will be either depressing or mawkish. They assume that if you’ve read/seen/attended the work of one disabled artist, you know all there is to know. A literary agent once declined to represent me because he already had a client who was deaf. He assumed that my writing about blindness and the other author’s writing about deafness would be in competition for readers. Surely neither of us had anything so unique or interesting to say that anyone would want to buy both our books.

Sadly, I know of disabled artists who have succumbed to this pressure. They decline invitations to contribute to anthologies, group exhibits or art festivals when disability is involved. To be labelled as a disabled artist threatens that their work will not be judged as seriously, or not judged at all. But given that artists’ biographies have become a ubiquitous part of publicity and promotion, I suspect that the artist’s disability will still be in there somewhere, the 800-lb gorilla in the room. Somehow the public will still be aware of the disability, will still murmur ‘what an inspiration’ in hushed tones behind their hands. I’d rather have the gorilla out in the open, perhaps wearing a pink tutu and certainly with a spotlight shining on her. I do not produce work in spite of my disability, but because of it. To those of us inside the ghetto this statement is self-evident to the point of banality. But to people outside the ghetto – including numerous other artists with disabilities – it is still challenging enough that I think it’s worth repeating.

I readily acknowledge that I haven’t always felt this way. Like most disabled people of my generation, I’ve led most of my life isolated from other disabled people. I did not go to a segregated school for the blind but had a mainstream education. Nonetheless, I have come to understand that the isolation of disabled people from each other has been as oppressive as our segregation from the Normates. It was a significant moment in the disability rights movement when individuals with different kinds of impairments – blindness, deafness, limited mobility, limited communication and so forth – first recognised that there is more that links us than separates us, and began to join forces to advocate for a common good.

Don’t get me wrong: some of my best friends are Normates. I was born into a Normate family. In fact, I was a Normate until I was about eleven. I’ve had positive responses to my work by Normate readers who’ve had the tenacity to overcome their initial resistance. When it happens, I usually direct them to work by other disabled artists. Little by little, those readers lose some of their Normate naiveté. Like mainstream visitors to other minority ghettos, they may come at first to listen to the soulful music or sample the exotic foods, but eventually a few of them may develop a less stereotypical view.

A few years ago I was at a meeting of the Society for Disability Studies, an organization of disabled academics, activists and artists, and our Normate allies. Several of us were gathered in a hallway outside the room where we were to have the conference banquet. Across the hall, there was another event in progress, possibly a wedding reception. Guests in dark suits and cocktail dresses were beginning to arrive and ride down the escalator from the hotel’s main lobby. There were five or six of us with the usual paraphernalia of disability: canes, wheelchairs, crutches and prosthetics. One of our group noticed that several of the Normates riding down the escalator jumped slightly when they spotted us, clearly thinking that they had ended up in the wrong place. Apparently, a couple of them even tried to turn around but they were already too far down to scramble back to safety. If there had only been one or two of us it would have been one thing. People like us occasionally do show up, even at the dressiest occasions. But we were too numerous, and we seemed unattended by Normate handlers. And because we were numerous, and were accustomed to versions of these encounters when we were on our own, we spontaneously improvised a guerrilla performance piece. We began to turn our attention to the Normates on the escalator, to move ourselves more conspicuously into their line of vision, and show our awareness of their discomfiture. A couple of us even waved. There we were in all our corporeal diversity, and there they were resplendent in their Normate privilege. And yet we seemed to be calling out to them, ‘Come on down to our level. The party’s just getting started.’

Some of my attitude about this comes from the fact that I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where much early activism in the American disability rights movement took place. The first wheelchair curb cut ramp is just outside the very BART station where I had the encounter I describe above. What keeps me from being insufferably smug is that I still have such encounters. Social change does not happen overnight, and certainly not as fast as any of us would wish. But I recognise progress; the simple fact that we can use this ghetto metaphor is a significant step forward. While once I felt pressure to distance myself from other disabled people, now I embrace this community. It feeds my artistic soul. Art of any value has always been challenging to mainstream audiences. For now, I consider my primary audience to be other disabled artists. If this means I’m only preaching to the choir, I’m happy to report that the choir is getting bigger and louder all the time.

The correct response to the Normate woman on the train is, ‘Piss on pity!’ Pointing out my status as inspirational is as clear a designation of my inferiority as dropping a coin in my beggar’s bowl. But saying this to the woman would have only confirmed another stereotype about disability: that it has made me angry and hostile. This would also make me pitiable, if less palatable. I could have said it anyway, for the benefit of others on the train, but I couldn’t tell if any of them would be receptive. If I couldn’t say it there, I am grateful to say it here, to readers conscious enough about the disability arts ghetto to want to read about it, where it might actually do some good.